The desire to get one’s name right can exceed the confines of a misspelt Starbucks cup. To Shakespeare’s Juliet, famed for asking her lovestruck question, “What’s in a name?”, Zahia Rahmani, the Franco-Algerian author of the novel “Muslim”, would respond: “Everything”. Call a rose by any other name, and it might doubt its own sweetness. The act of naming, or the denial of one’s name, can devastate one’s identity.
It is not by coincidence that the novel starts with a quote of Moby Dick’s iconic first line, “Call me Ishmael”, three simple words that struck generations of readers as one of the most powerful openings in modern literature.
“Muslim” is not so much “A Novel” in the classical sense of the word, but rather a juxtaposition of thoughts and impressions.
In “Muslim”, Rahmani’s second novel, the nameless narrator is denied precisely that ability to assert herself, an experience the author is familiar with: born in newly-independent Algeria in the troubled year of 1962, which marked the end of a seven-year war, Rahmani relocated to France as a five-year-old child and got immediately entangled in the political aftermath of the decolonization. “They remade me as they wished,” she writes. “They gave me a father, a religion, and a way of life. And a Name. ‘Muslim’ — a name without end.”
She is from the very start reduced to this label, which negates all others. Carrying the burden of “this madness, this limit” as she calls it, she recounts her escape from Algeria after her father, a Harki, fought alongside French soldiers—before eventually killing himself, years later, in France. She revisits this early exile from her identity, from her Berber mother tongue and her efforts to outrun a sometimes real, sometimes metaphorical “pack”.
Ironically for a book so obsessed with names, the subtitle appears to be a misnomer. “Muslim” is not so much “A Novel” in the classical sense of the word, but rather a juxtaposition of thoughts and impressions that Rahmani, who trained as an art historian, weaves into a wider canvas encompassing old Berber folks tales, religious myths, and autobiographical elements that hint, rather than tell. Tales of princesses and nuts rub shoulders with references to Adam and Eve and the Little Poucet. The only thread linking all these stories together is the lyrical and often angry voice of the narrator: “Everything I believed in has died. Only my tongue refuses to die.”
The first part of the title turns out to be equally misleading. Despite the turbulent political situation surrounding Rahmani’s birth and upbringing, and while the Western world still reels from 9/11 and ISIS attacks, the writer shies away from dwelling directly on the plight of the Muslim community, targeted by a heightened paranoia. The original French title, Musulman, is masculine rather than feminine: Rahmani’s Muslim extends beyond her and her time. Her book is about how outcasts are made by society with accusatory fingers, pointing at what could be a religion, an ethnicity, a community. “So perhaps I was a child of Ishmael, the abandoned child, the child born of a cast-off slave,” the narrator muses. Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, the expelled child who had to run to the desert with his mother, offers a similar story of escape engineered by a troublesome identity.
Rahmani’s “Muslim” hence brings to mind the World War II “Muselmann”, the German word for “Muslim” used by concentration camps’ prisoners to refer to those who, made weak by hunger and mistreatment, passively waited for their death. The Muselmann, in this context, did not refer to any specific religion, and was mostly used among Jewish inmates; it described someone whose will to live had been overpowered by a higher authority. It was the ultimate symbol of resignation, of humanity giving up on itself, and these are the dark ages that Rahmani taps into with her book. Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben pushed this fatalistic approach further and called the Muselmann “the bare life”, a living being stripped of its humanity. “The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule,” he wrote. Rahmani warns of similar dangers, as she describes a camp in the desert in which violence creeps forward under the mask of law. “Here, sand covers everything. Even the sins of man.”
The world described in “Muslim” is undeniably disturbing. At times it looks and feels like ours; then it suddenly merges into an allegorical parallel universe, crossing the looking glass like an Alice exploring a world with no wonder, only woes. It can be a heavy read, as the narrator hammers her grim point home, to the extent that the story has almost no flesh left, only aching bones.
They didn’t make women, men, and children the worst abomination upon earth but simply the Muslims. And to make them as they would have them, in order to make themselves scared of them, they made them into a single menacing horde.
By doing so, Rahmani doesn’t entirely manage to restore the Muslim’s humanity, sometimes turning it instead into the very abstraction that authoritarian powers have willed to reduce it to. The narrator’s voice, albeit a powerful one, errs and echoes itself, bouncing on the walls of its cell to the point of exhaustion.